All Souls: Purging the Web

As Jennifer Lawrence put in it, in her November Vanity Fair interview, speaking of the stolen, intimate photos of her that had been posted on websites such as 4Chan, Reddit, Twitter and Tumblr, “It’s not a scandal. It is a sex crime. It is a sexual violation.” Sadly, Jennifer Lawrence has become the literal embodiment of a new and relentless affliction: the past living on, eternally in the interstices of the Internet. 

The New Yorker recently ran “The Solace of Oblivion” (9/29), about lawsuits in Europe that have effectively challenged Google’s claim that it cannot police the past by monitoring web postings. The article contrasts that continent’s emerging laws with current U.S. statutes, which provide no assistance, for example, to the Catsouras family of Orange, Ca., parents who had sought, unsuccessfully, to keep purloined automobile accident pictures from web circulation. The images show the decapitated head of their deceased daughter Nikki. 

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The web’s ability to prolong the past indefinitely illustrates an essential Catholic teaching at the core of the Commemoration of All Souls. We humans are not discrete, utterly separable particles of self that, upon death, simply jettison out of this world, out of its history or its web of relationships. 

That notion of the soul, as a sort of solitary shadow, one that slips free of the world, can be traced to Rene Descartes, who defined the human person as a mind standing over-and-against the world. That is, after all, the upshot of his famous Cogito, ergo sum. And, if you think that you’re not immersed in the very warp and woof of the world on this side of the grave, it’s easy enough to understand why you picture the afterlife as something utterly shorn from it. 

But of course we never do stand free from the world. Language, the very process by which our minds ponder the world, comes to us from within the world, from others who share it with us. Every notion in our noggins, every observation we optimistically opine to be our own creation, comes to us from our encircling world of circumstance and environment. I think of the undergraduate honors student, who balked at taking a required course in religion, because her parents were closed minded religious bigots. I tried, ever so gently, to suggest that her stance did not reject her family’s bigotry. It only reversed the object of scorn.

Catholics have been praying for their dead from the beginning. I’ve run my fingers on a tomb slab in the Roman Catacombs of Callistus, one of the many, which asks of those passing to pray for the soul of the Christian buried there. We do not pray for our dead because we place limits upon the mercy of God. We pray because we take seriously our enveloping world, which brings souls to birth, forms and follows them, with historical consequences, even into death. 

A new industry now exists. Its purpose is to wipe the web of one’s now regretted past, so that someone meeting you for the first time—say a potential employer—will not know the you who preceded you. Many of us do deserve a fresh start—in life and on the web—but laundering the Internet record doesn’t expunge the self we’ve become by means of our history. 

Through grace, the lazy may have become diligent; the deceitful, honest; and those who once shirked financial responsibility may now be prepared to pay all debts. But grace accomplished this work in history, in the actual experiences of our lives. Or perhaps it did not, which is why those who want to know us want to know our past. The great question remains: has time altered us for better or for worse?

We believe that we were created for life with God. We were created to love God, which is only possible if we can choose not to love God. We don’t know if anyone is in hell, but the possibility of hell is a necessary implication of our true freedom vis-à-vis God. Love cannot be coerced. 

But what if, in our history, we’ve chosen God the way we do most everything else, which is to say, imperfectly? Upon death, the person we’ve become—each day of our lives—truly desires the ultimate truth, beauty and love, which we define as God. We want God, but our history has not made us ready for God. We would be confounded by that much truth, unable to bear such beauty, frustrated by our very inability to return such love.

Then God, in God’s mercy, purifies our very history. Not by expunging it, but by transforming it. On this side of the grave, the only thing that can undo the effects of history is more history. Time and space don’t exist beyond this world, at least not as we understand them, but a process of purifying them does. And it is for this that we pray.

It’s hard not to sympathize with Jennifer Lawrence. She won America’s heart, tripping on the stairs, as she ascended to receive her Oscar for Best Actress in “Silver Linings Playbook.” And those nude pictures? They were meant for her boyfriend. Celebrity blogger Perez Hilton posted the pics and later removed them, with the lame excuse that he hadn’t thought about what he was doing. Sadly, we’ve grown accustomed to the idea that people are nothing more than a bundle of data, ready for others to exploit. And women’s bodies have always been reduced, all too easily, to the status of property. 

For better or for worse, the web is us. It enables our valiant search for knowledge and our lamentable tendency to treat each other as objects. The web really is a living world, one that cannot be changed by fiat. It can only be altered in time. Even before the rise of the web, that was always the way of the world. And so the resurrection of Christ doesn’t deny death, it doesn’t cancel history. It redeems us from both, on this side of the grave and beyond.

Wisdom 3: 1-9    Romans 6: 3-9    John 6: 37-40

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